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8 Keys to Understanding & Applying Sport-Specific Training

8 Keys to Understanding & Applying Sport-Specific Training
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Mark Ginther

Mark Ginther has over 15 years professional experience working as a strength & conditioning coach, and boxing/kickboxing instructor. He has trained some of the top kickboxers and MMA fighters in the world. His long-running strength & conditioning columns appeared in Full Contact Fighter and IRONMAN Japan, and his monthly fitness column ran in Player magazine. He has contributed articles to sports and bodybuilding webzine, Testosterone Nation. His book, K.O. Power: Complete Strength Training for Devastating Punches, Kicks & Throws is available at Amazon.com.
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You may not consider yourself an athlete and you may not consider your clients athletes, but you probably participate in some form of sport or physical activity, whether it is basketball, cycling, tennis, golf, skiing, etc. And if you’re spending several hours per week in the gym, you want your training to have a positive effect on your chosen sport or activity.

“Sport-specific”, and more recently “functional” training have become major buzzwords in fitness and physical preparation circles over the years, and though the concept is fairly easy to grasp, not all fully comprehend their application.

There are two ways in which specificity or functionality can be understood. 

  • On one hand, training adaptations are highly specific: If one does weight training, the size and strength of the muscles increase, and if one jogs for distance, this has a positive effect on aerobic capacity.
  • On the other hand, (and this is usually what is meant when people use the term ‘specific’) specificity refers to how much the training effect transfers to the field. If one were to do nothing but squats, obviously his squat would improve, but if he were to then attempt to run a hundred meters would the squat training help improve his time?

This is what must be considered before beginning a training protocol; in what way will it help in the field or arena?

For example designing a sport-specific programs for basketball is not as simple as doing bench press to improve passing power, or running to improve endurance; several criteria must be considered.

I’ve compiled these 8 things to consider and understand when implementing Sports Specific Training Programs for yourself or as a coach, for your athletes.

1. Dominant Energy source: There are two primary energy sources, aerobic and anaerobic, and it would not be optimal to spend a lot of training time and energy jogging, or performing other aerobic conditioning if one’s sport requires predominately anaerobic energy output. Most sports have aerobic and anaerobic components (a layup in basketball is an anaerobic movement), but too often the anaerobic pathways are neglected in training (and too much emphasis on developing aerobic capacity diminishes power).

2. Muscle group: Priority should be given to the muscles that contribute most to the sport movement (the prime movers).  However, misuse of this principle results in asymmetrical and inharmonious body development, and neglects the antagonistic and stabilizer muscles.  Compensation strength exercises should always be used in training, especially during the preparatory phases of training.

3. Direction of movement: It is difficult to mimic the technical skill of a given sport in strength training therefore one must try to imitate the dynamic structure of the skill as well as the spatial orientation, the position of the body in relation to the surroundings.  The direction of the exercise should closely match the direction of the sport movement:

*Incline bench presses more closely resemble the posture (arms in relation to the torso) in a boxing straight punch than flat bench presses, while a decline bench press or bar dips, is closer to the angle acquired fighting from guard in MMA.

On the other hand care must be taken to avoid exercising in such a way that the main motion pattern (the sport technique) is substantially altered.  

Sports Specific TrainingExample 1: A sprinter running while wearing a weighted vest;  The additional weight makes the runner have to fight gravity to a greater extent, creating more of an upward push, than a forward thrust.

Example 2: A tennis player performing backhand strokes with elastic bands attached to the wrists also risks compromising technique by altering the natural rate of force development (a continuous pushing motion rather than a concentrated burst of speed and power).

4. Joint Angle: Strength should be developed in the range where it is most needed.  Developing maximal strength over a full range of motion is not always necessary.

For example, doing full squats, will not necessarily improve vertical jump more than doing half squats (which more closely resembles a jumping motion in range of motion).  In the full squat (butt to heels) one is limited by how much resistance can be overcome in the bottom (weakest) position, therefore not sufficiently loading the strongest portion of the lift.  The Soviets called this principle of training strength only in the range where force production is maximal ‘accentuation’, and claimed great success with it.  

Nevertheless, in the early preparatory period, or for relative novices, full range movements should be given priority, shifting to a greater percentage of partial movements as the competitive period nears.

5. Speed of movement: may refer to either the rate of change in muscle length, velocity of the load being lifted, or angular velocity of the joint.  It is important to include drills that approximate the speed of the sport movement.  Because of what is called the deceleration phase (e.g. decelerating towards the top of a bench press to avoid elbow trauma) standard weight training exercises are often impractical for speed drills; Plyometric and ballistic exercises being better suited for this type of training.

6. Type of resistance: Also to be taken into account is the type of muscle action required.

For example, a wrestler or judo practitioner who has to resist his opponent’s strength will need more static, (isometric) and eccentric (lengthening) training than a boxer or taekwondo practioner, who will focus almost exclusively on concentric (shortening) muscle actions.

7. Specificity vs. Variation: As important as specificity is to training, because of accommodation, a standard training program (same exercises, similar training loads) very quickly leads to slow or no, strength gains, and therefore variation is key for continued progress.

Sport biomechanist and former strength and conditioning consultant for the Soviet Union Olympic teams, Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky writes in his book Science and Practice of Strength Training that for Soviet athletes a total of 120 exercises, distributed into 12 complexes of 10 exercises each, were selected for training.  These complexes were changed every 2-4 months, and each was only used once in a 2-4 year period.  The exercises deemed most efficient for a particular athlete were used in the period before the most important competition.

*Note: Coming up with 120 sport specific exercises may seem like a daunting task, but consider that in a single exercise, say the incline bench press, small changes in the angle of incline, using dumbbells vs. barbells, and varying the width of grip are significant enough to register as different exercises by the nervous system.

8. Over-application and overkill: As important as developing functional strength is to an athlete, renowned Australian Strength Coach, Ian King believes that in the past several years the term has been overused, and abused.  This he believes is partially an overreaction to the concept, but also an attempt to sell more books and machines by those who really don’t know what they’re talking about.  What transfers to the field, he believes, is most important, not what appears to be functional, or specific.

To Summarize: When designing a training routine, one must consider all the facets of exercise specificity.  Working muscles should be the same as in the main sport skills, mimicking the main sport movement as much as possible, without substantially altering the motion pattern.   Strength and conditioning isn’t rocket science but there’s more to it than simply lifting weights.

About the author:

Mark Ginther has over 15 years professional experience working as a strength & conditioning coach, and boxing/kickboxing instructor. He has trained some of the top kickboxers and MMA fighters in the world. His long-running strength & conditioning columns appeared in Full Contact Fighter and IRONMAN Japan, and his monthly fitness column ran in Player magazine. He has contributed articles to sports and bodybuilding webzine, Testosterone Nation. His book, K.O. Power: Complete Strength Training for Devastating Punches, Kicks & Throws
is available at Amazon.com.

References:

Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., Science and Practice of Strength Training, Champagne IL, Human Kinetics, 1995

Fleck S. & Kraemer W., Designing Resistance Training Programs Second Edition, Champagne IL, Human Kinetics, 1997

Bompa, Tudor O., Periodization Training for Sports, Champagne IL, Human Kinetics, 1999

King, Ian, Heavy Metal, Testosterone Magazine, Issue No. 129, January 18, 2002

 

 

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Mark Ginther Mark Ginther has over 15 years professional experience working as a strength & conditioning coach, and boxing/kickboxing instructor. He has trained some of the top kickboxers and MMA fighters in the world. His long-running strength & conditioning columns appeared in Full Contact Fighter and IRONMAN Japan, and his monthly fitness column ran in Player magazine. He has contributed articles to sports and bodybuilding webzine, Testosterone Nation. His book, K.O. Power: Complete Strength Training for Devastating Punches, Kicks & Throws is available at Amazon.com.